Friday, 11 December 2015

I’m back! Continuing my travels in Reims

It’s been a shockingly long time since I posted, call it a sabbatical if you will… I’m not going to apologise. What with taking on a bigger role, indulging in the fairer sex and moving house I feel I have, understandably, been quite out of the loop. Be it from taking in the impressive Simon Schama re-hang at the National Portrait Gallery (or NPG to those in the know) or dining at Polpo, I have become something of a louche fellow about town, much in the cast of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey… but I jest, I lack the requisite style, panache and the ability to drop my ‘g’ for that accolade. Let’s put it this way, I’ve had a good time and left you quite on tenterhooks for the next leg of a French adventure. 

While it seems like a long while ago it still seems burnt in my memory. I’ve been back to France since and have just booked a few more trips to that magical place (North France to be exact), but it will hopefully keep me informed to write an extended piece on the subject at some stage. Here it seems apt to pick up where I left things, in the capital of Champagne, Reims. 

For those who can cast their minds back, Reims in my mind was a rather underwhelming city. Yes, it had a marvellous Cathedral and a couple of very impressive museums, but it wasn’t really for me. I had been underwhelmed by the surrounding countryside on the train journey in. The hills were too soft, there was something of a malaise about the whole area and the drizzling, overcast sky did nothing to help things. 

No matter, as I sat in a very agreeable Champagne bar with my coup of Blanc de Blancs, nibbling on shavings of saucisson, I reflected on the mysticisms of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. A book read when sixteen didn’t hold as much resonance, maybe it had something to do with the location? Who knows. 

I made my way to the main drag and had a small beer before I made my way to what was the crowning glory of Reims, L’Alambic - recommended in the travel supplement of a one-time Saturday Daily Telegraph. 

Again, it was table for one in this eccentric, contemporary restaurant in which the dining room was situated in a former wine cellar. I was greeted on arrival by Karol, the charming owner of the restaurant who addressed me by name (I was the only solo diner) and led to my table, past the vast copper alembic which lends its name to the restaurant. For those not in the know, it’s an essential part of the distilling process. On a little side table next to it, proudly presented, were some bottles of eau de vie (fruit brandy) from their favourite supplier, one Rene de Miscault. I knew as soon as I saw it, I was going to enjoy the food here as this is my favourite distiller, based in a small Alsatian village called Lapoutroie in the Vosges foothills. 

I was going hell for leather on this one, and as the very attractive and engaging Karol informed me she was going to tend to my table, I knew I was in excellent hands. Here’s how it panned out: 

A glass of house Champagne 

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Smoked duck breast stuffed with foie gras, green salad, vinaigrette

A glass of Chablis

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Rack of lamb (pink) with Dauphinoise potatoes, savoy cabbage and a light ratatouille

1/2 bottle of Pomerol 

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Vanilla parfait with Raspberries drenched in Marc de Champagne

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Coffee and eau de vie (Marc de Gewürztraminer)

It was an exquisite meal, more so for its simple, bold flavours and bone fresh ingredients. It was a very clever chef who prepared the meal. The lamb was so so succulent and the Dauphinoise was luxurious without being too-rich, the use of garlic was judicious. The great surprise was the starter, the juxtaposition of the duck breast against the smooth liver… divine. The pudding was pure decadence with a real kick of alcohol and tang of fresh raspberries and coulis. I’m almost transported back now, to that low ceilinged dining room as I write. All through the meal I was given impeccable service, friendly and not overbearing. What a meal, and topped of with some of Mr Miscault’s (who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago) glorious Marc de Gewürztraminer.

The real fun started though when I went up to the reception desk to pay the bill and I was encouraged by Karol to enjoy a glass of homemade cherry liqueur before I left! Let’s just say that I stayed for more, trying the full range of homemade ratafias and I experimented with my broken French and she spoke to me in her impeccable English! Of course two or three more toasts were consumed, this time from her stash of Miscault! Plum, Mirabelle (a type of plum) and pear were dispatched very merrily before I paid the bill and staggered out for a night-cap and a Gitane or ten! 

What an evening, what a host and what a restaurant. If you find yourself in Reims, make sure you visit L’Alambic for an experience you will never forget! 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Raiders of the Lost Fromage: Raucousness in Reims

It was time to leave the west of France, the majestic Loire, the charming landscape, delicate foods and gentle wines behind and head east. The robust cuisine, the bold wines and the distinctly northern European feel would be in sharp contrast to my previous destination. Having been to Alsace before, I had an inkling of what to expect, but nothing would prepare me for the welcoming people and, frankly, the pointless hedonism that was to characterise this half of the adventure. 

The sun shone as I left Tour, armed with a good slab of pate, a crusty loaf, some wild strawberries and a half bottle of red. It was a simple lunch but one which suited the long journey I was taking across the breadth of France. As I finished my customary pint of train station beer, I focused my attention on Reims, the legendary capital of Champagne, the next leg of my French tour. 

It was a long journey, with a brief stop in Paris, where I saw the inside of the Metro and Gare L’Est but little else, but I was content having enjoyed that nice, rough and gamey country pate and a light red. An hour later I was in Reims, holding such a significant place in French history, not so much for the famed wine but for its place in confirming the legitimacy of country’s monarch. 

In this relatively, gentle landscape, the cathedral dominated. It’s an imposing structure, more built for pomp and grandeur as opposed to beauty. Whatever your feelings when you see this building, it certainly merit a visit. Who can forget the iconic WW1 image of this bomb battered church, implying as it did a sense of stubborn defiance and fortitude in the midst of the destruction. 

Where the Loire Valley had been sunshine, the weather turned in the north east, shifting to that close, overcast, drizzly sky, unique to the UK, northern France and the low countries. Outside the cathedral it was not a picturesque town, in fact I found it to be quite ordinary and there was a definite malaise in the air, you could see the terrible legacy everywhere of a city which had been at the centre of many of Europe’s most devastating conflicts. 

But enough of bleak history, let’s get down to brass tacks. I got a little diorientated, turning and weaving through these rather uninspiring streets looking for a very unassuming hotel on a very unassuming street.

Hotel Gambetta was finally found after an infuriating series of exchanges with locals who I fear were trying to lead me off on a wild goose chase every step of the way. I arrived, and tried to check in...

“Non monsieur, ne pas le reservation.”
“Excuses moi?!?!”
“Non... desolee’

Fuck that, I’d booked a room at this sodding place and I was tired, it was not a mood to cross me. However, I fixed my most saccharine smile, trying to be civil; there must have been some mistake, an error in the booking?

Apparently not, he said looking through his book of printed off reservations. I was adamant, standing my ground, an angry young man quaking in his little boots (or suede loafers). It’s one of the very few times I have felt confrontational but I had paid for the room so I felt a little aggrieved. 

By this time, knowing he could speak the lingo, I switched back to English. He kept phaffing and then looking through his database for this booking. He was about to cast me out on my arse but, being a nosey bastard, I craned over the desk and there saw my booking which he had overlooked... oh dear. 

There are times to be smug and there are times to think that you might like a room, I chose the latter. Once I had discovered the error it was all smiles and courtesy. I apparently could have the master suite, a privilege, it had just been completed. 

Just completed was an apt description, the paint had barely set on the walls. As the proprietor opened the door to show off this new addition to his portfolio, the smell of freshly laid matt emulsion hit my nostrils. It was quite overpowering, my first impressions were that  I was going to expire this evening in a mixture of paint and alcohol.

“Sir!” he announced in his very good English, “here it is...” 

I surveyed the scene, it was impressive, an eight bedroom apartment, I could’ve had a party in this top-floor cavern. It was not furnished, apart from a single bed and the sockets had not even been adhered to the walls. The paint fumes were almost overwhelming... 

“You could cook in here, have a meal this evening...” Said my landlord, pointing at the Meile unit at one side of the living area, very proud. 
“On what? The floor?!” I retorted, then pointing to the expanse of unfurnished room facing me. 
“Well, it’s yours to do as you like this eve!” He nudged me and gave a disconcerting wink. Creepy as it was, I liked this charlatan who had palmed an unfinished, three room apartment on me to try and make up for an error. I went with it, paint fumes (I soon became accustomed) and all. 

Embracing this rather odd situation, I dumped my bags and headed into Reims. Yes, the Cathedral held a mystical charm as did a neighbouring full of medieval and 19th century artifact, but I was here for the gastronomy and I had been well briefed.

First and foremost, I found a little Champagne bar serving a cheeky Blanc de Blanc, non-descript but gorgeous against some shaved saussicon sec and a few salted almonds. I indulged in my book, occasionally looking up to see couples entwining and businessmen in fervent conversation, a working city. 


Taking my leave of these rather fun people I made my way slowly, stopping at a few watering holes, to another stand out restaurant L’Alembic... I shall cover this in the next post! 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Raiders of the Lost Fromage: Lad on Tours

As I sit writing this post, I am in the thoroughly genteel setting of The Albion in Islington, it’s full of trend-setters, of which I am most definitely not one bedecked in a pink-striped shirt, blue chinos and suede loafers. However, the setting does provide welcome inspiration to chart the next step of my French adventure.

Leaving Angers by train, I enjoyed a crusty baguette filled with cold butter, Rosette (a type of saucisson from Lyon) and cornichon with a couple of cold bottles of lager as the hilly countryside around my previous destination gave way to lush, verdant fields implying that this was an area which prided itself on a rich agricultural heritage. I was not wrong, The Touraine (of which Tours is the capital) is one of the most fertile areas of France, famed for  its rich bounty of produce from fine wines to vegetables and livestock. 

It was boiling hot when we pulled into the city and, huffing and puffing, I attempted to locate my apartment. I had intentionally opted for a self-catering option in Tours as I was determined to head to the city’s renowned covered market in search of my dinner. As I searched for my accommodation I came across the one frustrating stumbling block of Tours, its non-linear layout. It seemed that, unlike so many French settlements which generated outwards from a main square, Tour was pockets of activity within sleepy residential spaces. 

I got to the apartment, it was 13:50, I found everything firmly shut, ‘back at 14:30’... merde! It was sweltering and the stupid trundle suitcase I had brought on the trip had a distinct allergy to cobbles. It had taken me a little while to find this place, unmarked as it was on any map and I was a hot and bothered little fellow. I rang the bell, they were going to let me in... not they weren’t. A grumpy looking woman came to the locked door and aggressively hammered on the sign with a digit, ‘Non!’ she exclaimed ‘retournee a 2:30’. Well, I felt well and truly beaten... wiping my brow under the sun I pondered what to do before I returned. 

Luckily, as in most of these situation, a bar magically appeared. One which coincidentally enough closed at 14:30 on a Monday (for any layman, France is a commercial ghost town on Mondays), I was parched and the rather unrefreshing brown Belgian beer the proprietor pour me - assuring me that this is what the ‘Englishman’ was partial to - I suppose it was better than nothing. Perhaps I might have preferred a Pelforth from the condensing tap at the bar than a luke-warm Leffe. However, the chap had seen my predicament and gave me the beer on the house, I could not complain and found myself in that awkward situation where I had to respond to his hospitality by drinking with gusto. 

With a brown beer weighing heavy on my ever expanding belly, I went back to the apartment. It was rather spare but perfect for what I needed, a base from which I could gorge myself on charcuterie whilst I quaffed deep on the local tipple. 

Dumping my bags I set out to Tours famous covered market, Les Halles, to purchase my dinner, the most important consideration of the day. Nothing beats great charcuterie and after ten minutes of walking to the west of the city centre I was greeted with the Mecca of porky products (probably not the most appropriate metaphor). There was everything one could imagine, from fifteen different types of cooked ham and almost as many dried, stacks and stacks of salamis, tantalising terrines, quivering jellied meats, smoked sausages, bowls and bowls of prepared salads... I was in heaven! 

I left the charcuterie with mountains of salami, head cheeses, pates and various salad. I then dipped into a marvellous bakery and purchased two warm, crusty ficelles (a thin, crispy type of baguette). Now that I had the basics, it was time to tackle the fruit seller, purchasing wild strawberries, luscious white peaches and plumptious grapes. I was nearly there, all that was needed now was some excellent local wine to pair with this beautiful food. 

Tipping into a little independent wine shop, it was just a lucky coincidence that there was one in close proximity to the market. I thought to myself, let’s not go crazy, let’s get a few half bottles, some gems from the area, a little tour through the vintages of the Loire Valley, of which there are many. I plumped for a Muscadet (produced just south of Nantes), a Sancerre (a gentle, sophisticated white from further into the French interior) and a Chinon (a light to medium-bodied red from a picturesque area just to the North of Tours). I was all set for dinner in my little ‘studio’; a rather generous word for the student accommodation I was staying in, which had a vending machine dispensing microwaveable blanquette de veau. 

Depositing my spoils, I decided to take in one of the main sites of the city, the cathedral. A most wonderful medieval structure, it was magnificent, easily one of the best that I saw on the trip. It was elegant and exuded sophisticated grandeur, hinting at the wealth of the region in years gone by. it struck an imposing gaze over a settlement which has not been blighted by sky scrapers and still retains some old world charm. Being off-season it was relatively quiet and as such offered a tranquil sanctuary in what was otherwise quite a bustling city, teeming with students. 

Following a few late afternoon/early evening pints of nondescript, papery pints of Stella Artois and a shot of Kraken rum at a ‘trendy’ bar which verged a little too much on the Goth side for my liking (perhaps not such a good recommendation from the guidebook) I headed back to the apartment for a self prepared feast of charcuterie and cheese in the company of some very fine drink. 

Plating the first course I enjoyed some exquisite Rillette de Tours, the local delicacy. It was unctuous, fatty, strands of soft pork suspended in a savoury mix of spice, lard, herbs and salt. The bone dry Muscadet cut through the grease... a pleasing combination, whetting my  appetite for an array of tasty charcuterie. 

The ‘Rosette‘ saucisson was robust as I moved onto the light Chinon, pairing well with the goaty, farmyardy Crotin de Chavignol, a small local cheese from the area. The jambon blanc was moist and tender, subtly flavoured and well paired against the stronger flavours of the fromage du tete and monceau (two types of terrine made from pigs head). It was a firework display of flavour, complemented by some cracking bread and a little bit of cold butter, it made the wine slip down a treat. 

I could feel my belly expanding as I cast my eyes to the ripe fruit. The Sancerre worked its magic as I tucked in, veritably gorging myself on this excellent produce... what a treat and what a pig I felt. Truly a spectacular meal, I was glad I had resisted the temptation to buy some sausages from the butcher to augment this feast! 

With a stomach full and a slightly self-satisfied smile on my face I decided that, rather than try my luck on the Tours bar scene, I would call it an early night and limber up for the next, exciting leg of the trip, which would see me hop over Paris to the very different, North Eastern side of the country. As I drifted off into a food induced slumber, I thought of the delights that would await me when I got to Reims.

Next time: I head to the capital of Champagne where hotel problems, fine wine, exceptional food, Irish pubs and some rather exuberant expats awaited...

Monday, 20 July 2015

Raider of the Lost Fromage: The French adventure so far...

For those of you who want to recap before I resume my epic quest of Northern France, here is a little reminder...

Most stories start from the beginning, and some start from the end and go back to the beginning... flashback stylee (on this occasion the misspelling was intentional). But on this occasion I am going to take an unconventional turn and start from the middle of my trip as it was at this juncture that I found the essence of why I chose to travel solo, across the breadth of France, in the first place. 

Picture the scene: The author of this piece downing shot after shot of slivovitz chased with half pints of Ardennes-style beer on a barge perched on the Meuse. This was ‘Mawhot’ Charleville-Meziere’s main evening hangout, named after a legendary lizard that is said to inhabit the murky river waters that flow through the town. The crowd that evening was lively, and the rare-arrival of an Englishman was something of a novelty, especially one wearing rust-coloured cords and wearing a blue tweed sports jacket... adding to the experience, it could only be the Bloody Good Chap. Patrons decided to try to out-do each other in terms of largess and I was plied with all manner of lethal spirits as Aswad’s Greatest Hits played on the establishment's sound system. 

Just as the band's 1988 smash ‘Don’t Turn Around’ had finished, there was a call for silence as a buxom creature took to the floor with an accordion and started to play Breton sea shanties. This seemed rather odd, considering that we were, perhaps, in one of the most landlocked regions of France, but I went with the flow. Soon we were all dancing arm in arm, my new friends Yvette and Matthieu encouraging me to join in the singing and dancing, then ‘Request for the English! C’mon Marie, one for l’Anglais’... 

I don’t know if you have ever heard Kashmir by Led Zeppelin played on the accordion, and in retrospect I think I committed blasphemy in asking for this 8:28 minute epic to be delivered in such a style but... the fog of plum brandy, brown beer and a pack of Gitanes clouded judgement somewhat. This slow song is, how should I say, much, much slower when played in the style requested, but it didn’t matter, it was all in the spirit of the occasion. We partied that Wednesday night away as the famed rain of the low countries beat down on the roof of the barge, and the bartender got ready to pour another round of liqueurs and small beers. 

We finished around 05:30, and I woke up feeling like death, with a tongue like sandpaper, ruddy cheeks and stinging, crusty eyes, but very happy. I had found out what it was all about to travel solo, meet new people, have new experiences  without the encumbrance of friends or family in tow. It felt liberating and showcased the friendliness and inclusiveness of my destination. 

In this seven-parter series, I intend to take you through each of the seven locations I visited on my journey: Nantes, Angers, Tours, Reims, Charleville-Mezieres, Metz, Nancy and Strasbourg and hopefully give you an insight into each of their unique characters. Perhaps it might even inspire a future visit or holiday. 

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Nantes rarely seems to get much of a look in on the tourism agenda, yet, having spent the first 24 hours of my trip in Brittany’s former capital, I must say that I highly recommend it to those looking for a short weekend break, or a destination from which to start a big adventure. It could be anything from dipping down the Atlantic coast or following the Loire as it contours through the French interior to a leisurely drive/cycle through Breton pastures. 

I will warn those culture vultures and Medieval maniacs that Nantes is not a ‘pretty’ place, rather a working one, built on fishing, shipbuilding and biscuits (LU’s Petit Ecoliers come hail from here). It bursts with affluence and the glitz and glamour someone might associate with a major city, yet it is only a minor player. 

The layout is stereotypical, grand boulevards cut through sections of non-linear streets, punctuated here and there by squares teeming with ornate churches, casual cafes and rip-off restaurants. 

Arriving at 9:00am on a Saturday, I found that the city was yet to awaken - it was deathly quiet as I pitched up at my cheap, but very cheerful hotel! Dumping my bags, I headed off to explore and grab a cup of coffee. The local square was characterised by a large fountain and families enjoying their baguettes avec buerre et confiture, the sky was ominous, the climate hazy. Having only had four hours sleep the night before, I was in need of something to perk me up. Alighting on a tabac I found my first opportunity. 

I have never really been a cigarette smoker and had fully intended to enjoy a cigar or two on this trip. However, my eyes alighted on a packet of Gitanes Filtre and I instantly knew that this would be my choice. No longer available in the UK the might Gitane conjure up a real sense of nostalgia, my father’s brand of choice, the smell took me back to the rugged landscape of the Lot-Garonne in the south west of France. 

I quickly found a cafe, “un Muscadet s’il vous plait”, I said with confidence. No one batted an eyelid, the fact that I was ordering a glass of wine at 10:30am seemed entirely normal. Anyway, it was my holiday, so restraint be damned! One wanted to say about the wine that it was ‘Heaven with Gitanes...’ (a Brideshead reference for my more literary followers). All I needed now was a stripy jumper, a plate of oysters and ecrevettes (large prawns) and the look would be complete. After all this procrastination, it was time for lunch.

The Gallette (buckwheat pancake) is synonymous with the area around Nantes and seemingly there was an establishment on each corner offering all manner of sweet and savoury fillings. there was a place the guide recommended, and yes, it was near my hotel. I pitched up, but it looked tacky and soulless compared to the one next to it. So it was that I took the road less travelled by, not for the first time in my life, and went to the smaller, rather less ‘bells and whistles’ establishment. 

As soon as I stepped over the threshold, I knew I wanted one of the famous Breton ciders, clear and flat, it’s served by the china bowl (boelee) and decanted from a pottery jug. It slipped down a treat as I tucked into a Gallette filled with onions, ham, cheese and of course, the obligatory egg, with an irresistibly runny yolk! This was quickly followed by a flambeed crepe topped with rum and raisins. It was a fine meal and a perfect introduction to my quest to sample as much regional cuisine as possible. 

The afternoon was spent pootling around town, stopping every now and then for a refresher. One place, Comedie de Vins, springs to mind where dry white wine played off against a plate of salty sardines and a bowl of saucisson as the sky became clear and the evening sun shone on my brow.

Here I take a moment to pause... as dinner deserves a short, stand alone post, given that it was one of the two big meals that I decided to indulge in on this bloody good adventure... 

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chose Le restaurant Baron-Lefèvre having read some very glittering reviews of the establishment on Trip Advisor and, having taken a look at the website, I was captivated by the modern, airy look of the restaurant. Plenty of exposed brickwork, steel railings, a playful green house on one wall and an open kitchen on the other, it looked inviting and contemporary. I then read their philosophy of staying true to local Nantaise cuisine, taking advantage home grown vegetables (for which the area is renowned), the abundance of the  sea and river, lamb reared on the salty marshes and time-honoured techniques of classical French cuisine. I made an advance booking. 

I arrived at Le restaurant Baron-Lefèvre and was ushered to my table for one. The nice thing about France is there were a couple of other lone diners and I was not made to feel unwelcome or a spectacle as so often happens in UK restaurants. Nor was I given a reduced level of service which also seems to typify dining solo. 

The menu was full of interesting preparations, a few classics, a couple twists on classics and some house originals. What I immediately noticed was the simplicity of the preparations and an emphasis on 2-3 core ingredients, proudly stamped with local provenance. There were plenty of mouth watering plates from a simple platter of langoustine (Dublin Bay Prawns) served on crushed ice to a traditional salt marsh rack of lamb with spring vegetables. However, there were a few things that leaped out at me. Here’s what I went for: 


White Asparagus with Sauce Mousseline 
Loire Valley Cremant (sparkling wine) 

White asparagus is not nearly as popular in the UK as it is on the continent where it takes precedence over the green variety. It has a subtler flavour, with a faint taste of oysters. Perfectly cooked, each part of the vegetables was tender and accompanied by a foaming, decadent sauce Mousseline, which is essentially a Hollandaise with the addition of whipped cream. Deliciously decadent, but judiciously portioned, it whetted my appetite for my main course. The dry, sparkling cremant was a light counterpoint which worked well. 

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Eels in a parsley and garlic butter sauce with Nantes spring vegetables
A Carafe of Muscadet

Eels and apprehension go hand in hand in the mind of the Englishman and I do think this a sad state of affairs, as there are few greater pleasures that the taste of eel flesh with its tender, oily flesh offset by a reassuringly organic earthiness found in river fish. The Loire abounds with Eels so this really is the place to eat it. This time, I had it prepared in a very classic style in a parsley, garlic and butter sauce surrounded by tiny new potatoes. It’s a winning combination and made even more special with a small cocotte of turned carrots, fresh peas and green asparagus tips. Wanting to drink the local tipple, I went for a carafe of Muscadet, where its fresh, slightly acidic taste worked well with rich food. A truly stunning dish. 

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Rum Baba with Tropical Fruits
Cafe Noir

Given the richness of the main course, I was tempted to pass on pudding until I saw that one of the specials for the evening was a traditionally made Rum Baba. Although a speciality of Lorraine (where I visit later in the trip) I could not resist - it’s one of my favourite puddings, a sure way to my heart. I was presented with a  light doughnut type pastry on a bed of pineapple carpaccio and raspberries, topped with a generous portion of Chantilly cream then liberally doused with white rum (which soaked into the pastry). With each mouthful I felt my stomach agreeably expanding! It’s highly alcoholic so there was no need for a digestif but I a well made black coffee cut through the richness! 

The total bill was €57, which, given the amount I had consumed was not to bad at all. It was a superb meal, if you are in Nantes, I thoroughly recommend making the time to visit. 

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It was time to leave Nantes, so stopping off at a bakery on the way to the station, I grabbed a baguette filled with saucisson and cornichon and a black coffee to stiffen my resolve. Although the night before had not been too heavy, I had enjoyed a few nicely chilled beers and a couple of glasses of eau de vie in the buzzing city centre at the popular Circle Rouge. Being a solo traveller I had attracted a bit of attention with my trusty book in hand, ‘Ad Men and Bad Men’ and of course played the role of affable tourist answering a stream of questions on my English credentials. 

Arriving at the station I had a little time to kill, so I opted for the first of many customary train beers. As the rather sub-par Kronenbourg original (non of this 1664 rubbish) slipped down, I kept hearing the the opening bars of Shanice’s 1991 chart topper ‘Smile’ to a point where it became quite irritating. Of course it wasn’t the R ‘n’ B classic but a weird jingle for the constant stream of announcements from the team at SNCF. It was a sound that was going to characterise the trip as I experienced the French railway system. 

The lush countryside of the Loire Valley unfolded before me as we wended our way to Angers and I munched away on that delicious sandwich, full of cold butter, cured meat and piquant pickle. Before I knew it, the ancient city of Angers revealed itself and it was time to enjoy the second destination on the trip.

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Any fans of medieval history will be familiar with Angers, the seat of the legendary Geoffrey of Anjou and a wealthy dukedom. It houses a number of treasures, including a set of UNESCO tapestries of the Apocalypse and a great collection in their museum of fine arts. Furthermore, the city is beautifully preserved full of fine architecture so there is plenty to see and do. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so the town was somewhat sleepy, but that didn’t stand in my way too much.

I dumped my bags at the ever reliable Ibis Hotel, a French institution and hit the town, but not before I had a discouraging exchange with the hotel’s concierge, who told me that the only place to eat in the whole place was the rather uninspiring hotel restaurant. I’m sure the food would not have been that bad, but I was not hear to dine in the bar at a chain hotel. I knew I could do a bit better, even when taking pot luck. 

It was time to explore the town, take in the cathedral and, have a glass or two of the local tipple, Rose d’Anjou. A strange wine, this beverage is not that popular in the UK and is a little bit rough and ready, however, it goes down quite agreeably on a piping hot day when chilled, especially with a bowl of finely sliced saucisson in a well-appointed square in the shadow of an ancient tower. 

An hour in the Fine Arts Museum was rewarding, especially for the small but impressive room of 16th and 17th Century Flemish old master paintings and some sombre but beautifully crafted 12th and 13th Century iconography. It was well worth the 6€ ticket and I recommend popping in if you find yourself in Angers.

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I become a habitual snacker when I go on holiday, making the most of the change in cuisine and, pottering around the quiet Sunday afternoon streets, I found the most amazing of fast food emporiums: The rotisserie. It was an emporium of meaty wonder and a rare place of activity as the sultry sun beat down. 

I entered and the enticing smell and site of chickens ‘turning and turning in a widening gyre’ or rather spits greeted me. But that was not all, there were trays of Rillons (confit pork belly), sausages, Morteau, roasted lamb, bowls of sauteed potatoes, pots of homemade mayonnaise, chopped hard boiled eggs... 

This was real fast food! Rather than the disgusting array of draft soft drinks, there were half bottle of wine and plastic glasses, cans of beer or freshly squeezed juice. We desperately need this in London for the masses. I went for a Rillons sandwich with a can of lager, it was unctuous and delicious, sticky, slightly gelatinous, slightly greasy, utterly deliciously. If sex was a sandwich, this would be it! 

*

Dinner soon came around and despite the Rillons sandwich, a little aperitif of Rose de Anjou and a bowl of olives whetted my appetite for a simple plate in an equally simple restaurant. Yes Basserie de Gare (opposite the station as you might guess) was basic, but not unpleasant. It was a fine evening so I took a table outside. Scanning the menu and looking at the rather pedestrian offering I saw something that had long been on my bucket list of things to try, Andouilette. 

For American readers this is not to be confused with the Cajun Andouille which is a spicy pork sausage, this one is actually made of pigs intestines rolled into a cylinder and bound in more intestines. It has quite a high, offaly smell and an acquired, chewy texture. It’s not for the faint-hearted and is certainly an alien taste to the Anglo-American palate. I ordered with some trepidation, and the waiter was rather surprised, ‘really?’ he said. This made me more determined, ‘of course!’ I replied, ‘d’accord’ returned, he went away shaking his head, probably thinking I was made. I ordered a glass of Sancerre (another Loire Valley wine) and awaited my fate...

I must say the dish that arrived did look very inviting, a rustic white sausage with appealing grill marks, a pile of fries and some simply dressed lettuce arrived. I tucked in, and I must say that I don’t know why I was so apprehensive. Tasting the andouilette dispelled any negative illusions that had been communicated to me by others who had tried this delicacy. Yes there was a slight barnyard-y element to this, as one would expect of anything associated with the digestive tract, but it was not unpleasant. I love chewy, gelatinous textures and I consumed my meal with gusto, almost as soon as it had arrived, it was gone! 


I did not go for a pudding, I didn’t need it, instead I went back into town for a digestif, in particular a glass of Cointreau, another local tipple (it’s produced on the outskirts of Angers). Luckily, bars are open on Sunday evenings and so I was not disappointed. It was a great way to round off the day, accompanied by a half-pint or three of beer. Another perfect ending to another delightful day...

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Choppy Waters

It seemed that over the last year I caused something of a small sensation, at least amongst my friends, off the back of a post I wrote about the perils of using Tinder. Wow, I thought, I must be something of a minor Dickens, penning such incisive social commentary. Wow, had I yet to have some real life experience! 

2015 began promisingly, with, as the reader can imagine, a couple of Tinder dates. These led to little, except being ejected from the infamous Admiral Codrington pub for a little too much ‘heavy petting’. I think the words of the bartender were ‘that’s enough of the floor show’. A good tale, but I have yet to darken the doors of that particular establishment since. Was it a good omen for the year to come? That’s for you to decide. 

Following another number of pricey and rather disappointing dead-ends through the labyrinth that is the dating app, I decided that the best thing was to eschew all forms of online succor and try my luck in the scary, real world. I must say that it has been a damn sight more successful but also a little more frustrating when thing have not worked out. That’s where I find myself as I write this post. 

When I write this, I must try very hard not to come across as some scorned lover or a melodramatic fool, it’s an unattractive quality and, those who are familiar with me know that I am intense enough as it is. 

Writing is a great therapy and perhaps a great way of casting off one’s sorrow at the peril of another’s rancor. I hope not to the latter, it’s certainly not my intention to hurt anyone, as such everything remains in vague terms. 

I’ve always believed the best things happen when you’re not looking for them, a much harder thing to achieve than you would believe! But so it was that, riding on a high from great weather, great booze and a few hours bantering with a best mate I headed to a party in Central London. 

It was one of those nights in which everything clicked, especially my charm. I’m an acquired taste at the best of times and I met a few kindred spirits that night. Most notable there was one, an attractive girl, fun, sparkling conversation, great figure... I think we all know where this is going. Drink followed drink, followed drink followed drink, until we were all huddled around a kitchen table drinking slivovitz and raising toasts to imaginary luminaries, conceived on the spur of the moment...

...The next morning hit me like a ton of bricks, but I had woken up with someone rather attractive and with great chat (the most important thing, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). Peeling myself, reluctantly, from bed, I helped/hindered in cleaning up the aftermath of the party and made my way to Finsbury Park to take advantage of a free ticket to Wireless - a hugely generous present from a very special friend. 

The seeds were sown and the dating started. I’m afraid I am a novice, but I invest, and I threw the kitchen sink at it, great restaurants, largesse came to the fore. I am sure that most men reading this will share a certain concern, in that dating is an expensive pastime in which there is often little reward... It makes me sound very bitter, don’t get me wrong I have no regrets but when you look at the bank balance, it’s a chastening experience. 

In the basest terms of this dating escapade, we had: a fish supper (a bloody good one too), drinks, many more drinks, sex, dinner, drinks, drinks, drinks, weepy friend turning up, night at home, drinks, drinks, drinks, drinks, drinks, drinks, both too drunk for sex, museum visit, drinks x 6, dinner, drinks x 8, argument, grumpy cab ride, sex, 1/2 week of texting... end! 

Wow, I have put it in the most base terms, and it feels a bit harsh, but it’s hard to describe a fling (although I felt it was a little more than that). It was one of those terrible situations when I feel I was more into it, more indulgent and as a consequence more vulnerable. 

I wanted this to develop into something more but, you know what, you cannot force someone to be interested in you and if they want to end it in the early stages, for whatever reason, then fair enough. I’m mature enough to understand, no-one wants to feel trapped. Better to find out now than later down the line. 

I think the worst moment is receiving a text to the effect, it’s terribly impersonal more than anything else. An anodyne statement that it’s over coupled with a half-hearted excuse, rooted in the virtues of personal freedom and my personal welfare. It always seems that I obtain this kind of statement on inappropriate platforms or at inappropriate times, which never helps; I remember one occasion I had a break-up call on a train whilst sat with my then managing director, stalled outside a Nottinghamshire power station!  

Such is life I suppose and it’s best not to look back in anger but focus on three weeks of great fun shared with someone entertaining. It had its moments, but overall I had a great time and it went to prove to myself how much I enjoyed dating. I look on, and look forward to the next romantic adventure with no hang-ups. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Notes from the blue corner: The busted flush

Two posts in one weekend, goodness me we are lucky aren’t we! I shall be brief, as I fear that I have been rather lengthy in my last few blogs. 

As a Tory, I should be jolly pleased with myself, given that we have the first Conservative majority since 1997, but I wouldn’t want to offend the acting leader of the Labour Party so I will refrain from gloating or indeed dwelling on the subject.

No, it is the Labour Party I want to focus on here, taking the opportunity to set the barrels of my salt-loaded shotgun on one Mr. Miliband Snr, a most craven individual if ever there was one. I was inspired to type this by an article I read in the Mail Online, which claims that Ed Miliband was not invited to his brother’s fiftieth. As the elder one of two brothers myself, if  this is true, it shows the former foreign secretary in a dismal light. 

There has been much furore and hearsay about ‘the wounded’ brother, blood apparently gushing from his back. They talk of a ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, cruelly denied his turn as leader of the party. Labour claims it could have edged the election if Miliband Major had been at the helm, an easy thing for a broken and ideologically bankrupt party to claim in hindsight - although in all likelihood they would have still lost. 

The story, really, smacks of fantasy, as if they were casting Cameron as Narnia’s White Witch and Miliband as Aslan, sailing in to rid the land of perpetual winter. The ongoing ‘feud’ between the brothers has been picked apart, analysed to death and David Miliband has been stoking rumours of a return to British Politics, it all seems so dramatic. 

To make the matter more of a story, even Lord ‘Two Jags’ Prescott, the coarse union dinosaur, has waded in, telling Mili to keep his nose out. As much as I loath Lord Prescott, his manner and all he stands for, the man has a point. The Labour Party needs to move on.

It is easy to forget that David Miliband had a number of opportunities to de-throne Gordon Brown during his premiership and he bottled it each time. Caution is often a deathblow for any ambitious politician and to my mind it was so in this case. 

Furthermore, he did not put an appealing case to the broad church of his party, he must have had an inkling that mass union support was unlikely. It must have been gutting to lose but surely, there are bigger things in life - perhaps David Miliband was consumed by the idea of becoming Prime Minister? I don’t know... I merely speculate. 

However there is an even bigger reason that this fraternal feud should make us cautious of embracing David Miliband, aside from the fact that it suggests the man is prone to holding a grudge. In essence, he abandoned his constituency. He decided to take a post in the US, albeit for a worthy cause, and stand down as an MP rather than seeing the electoral term through and then going. Obviously there were reasons, but it does not inspire confidence that the man put his electorate first and foremost. It’s a bit flaky for my tastes, and I dare say a number of other too.

There’s somethings marvellously Heseltine-esque about the whole thing, storming off in a huff and sniping from the sidelines. But at least ‘Tarzan’ had the decency to remain in his seat and serve his constituents whilst he planned his gambit. 


In any case, we need a strong, robust opposition, it’s how an effective parliament works. The only way we will achieve this is if Labour is brave enough move on from Miliband and look to fresh blood untainted by Blair and Brown. 

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Bloody Good Chap goes to France: If sex was a sandwich

It was time to leave Nantes, so stopping off at a bakery on the way to the station, I grabbed a baguette filled with saucisson and cornichon and a black coffee to stiffen my resolve. Although the night before had not been too heavy, I had enjoyed a few nicely chilled beers and a couple of glasses of eau de vie in the buzzing city centre at the popular Circle Rouge. Being a solo traveller I had attracted a bit of attention with my trusty book in hand, ‘Ad Men and Bad Men’ and of course played the role of affable tourist answering a stream of questions on my English credentials. 

Arriving at the station I had a little time to kill, so I opted for the first of many customary train beers. As the rather sub-par Kronenbourg original (non of this 1664 rubbish) slipped down, I kept hearing the the opening bars of Shanice’s 1991 chart topper ‘Smile’ to a point where it became quite irritating. Of course it wasn’t the R ‘n’ B classic but a weird jingle for the constant stream of announcements from the team at SNCF. It was a sound that was going to characterise the trip as I experienced the French railway system. 

The lush countryside of the Loire Valley unfolded before me as we wended our way to Angers and I munched away on that delicious sandwich, full of cold butter, cured meat and piquant pickle. Before I knew it, the ancient city of Angers revealed itself and it was time to enjoy the second destination on the trip.

*

Any fans of medieval history will be familiar with Angers, the seat of the legendary Geoffrey of Anjou and a wealthy dukedom. It houses a number of treasures, including a set of UNESCO tapestries of the Apocalypse and a great collection in their museum of fine arts. Furthermore, the city is beautifully preserved full of fine architecture so there is plenty to see and do. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so the town was somewhat sleepy, but that didn’t stand in my way too much.

I dumped my bags at the ever reliable Ibis Hotel, a French institution and hit the town, but not before I had a discouraging exchange with the hotel’s concierge, who told me that the only place to eat in the whole place was the rather uninspiring hotel restaurant. I’m sure the food would not have been that bad, but I was not hear to dine in the bar at a chain hotel. I knew I could do a bit better, even when taking pot luck. 

It was time to explore the town, take in the cathedral and, have a glass or two of the local tipple, Rose d’Anjou. A strange wine, this beverage is not that popular in the UK and is a little bit rough and ready, however, it goes down quite agreeably on a piping hot day when chilled, especially with a bowl of finely sliced saucisson in a well-appointed square in the shadow of an ancient tower. 

An hour in the Fine Arts Museum was rewarding, especially for the small but impressive room of 16th and 17th Century Flemish old master paintings and some sombre but beautifully crafted 12th and 13th Century iconography. It was well worth the 6€ ticket and I recommend popping in if you find yourself in Angers.

*

I become a habitual snacker when I go on holiday, making the most of the change in cuisine and, pottering around the quiet Sunday afternoon streets, I found the most amazing of fast food emporiums: The rotisserie. It was an emporium of meaty wonder and a rare place of activity as the sultry sun beat down. 

I entered and the enticing smell and site of chickens ‘turning and turning in a widening gyre’ or rather spits greeted me. But that was not all, there were trays of Rillons (confit pork belly), sausages, Morteau, roasted lamb, bowls of sauteed potatoes, pots of homemade mayonnaise, chopped hard boiled eggs... 

This was real fast food! Rather than the disgusting array of draft soft drinks, there were half bottle of wine and plastic glasses, cans of beer or freshly squeezed juice. We desperately need this in London for the masses. I went for a Rillons sandwich with a can of lager, it was unctuous and delicious, sticky, slightly gelatinous, slightly greasy, utterly deliciously. If sex was a sandwich, this would be it! 

*

Dinner soon came around and despite the Rillons sandwich, a little aperitif of Rose de Anjou and a bowl of olives whetted my appetite for a simple plate in an equally simple restaurant. Yes Basserie de Gare (opposite the station as you might guess) was basic, but not unpleasant. It was a fine evening so I took a table outside. Scanning the menu and looking at the rather pedestrian offering I saw something that had long been on my bucket list of things to try, Andouilette. 

For American readers this is not to be confused with the Cajun Andouille which is a spicy pork sausage, this one is actually made of pigs intestines rolled into a cylinder and bound in more intestines. It has quite a high, offaly smell and an acquired, chewy texture. It’s not for the faint-hearted and is certainly an alien taste to the Anglo-American palate. I ordered with some trepidation, and the waiter was rather surprised, ‘really?’ he said. This made me more determined, ‘of course!’ I replied, ‘d’accord’ returned, he went away shaking his head, probably thinking I was made. I ordered a glass of Sancerre (another Loire Valley wine) and awaited my fate...

I must say the dish that arrived did look very inviting, a rustic white sausage with appealing grill marks, a pile of fries and some simply dressed lettuce arrived. I tucked in, and I must say that I don’t know why I was so apprehensive. Tasting the andouilette dispelled any negative illusions that had been communicated to me by others who had tried this delicacy. Yes there was a slight barnyard-y element to this, as one would expect of anything associated with the digestive tract, but it was not unpleasant. I love chewy, gelatinous textures and I consumed my meal with gusto, almost as soon as it had arrived, it was gone! 

I did not go for a pudding, I didn’t need it, instead I went back into town for a digestif, in particular a glass of Cointreau, another local tipple (it’s produced on the outskirts of Angers). Luckily, bars are open on Sunday evenings and so I was not disappointed. It was a great way to round off the day, accompanied by a half-pint or three of beer. Another perfect ending to another delightful day...


Coming up: I head to Tours to discover why it’s one of France’s most famous destinations for charcuterie. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Bloody Good Chap goes to France: Dinner with the Baron [Restaurant Review]

33 Rue de Rieux, 44000 Nantes, France
+33 2 40 89 20 20

As promised, I am producing a few extra posts which are designed to dwell on a few of the exceptional meals I had on my French adventure. 

I chose Le restaurant Baron-Lefèvre having read some very glittering reviews of the establishment on Trip Advisor and, having taken a look at the website, I was captivated by the modern, airy look of the restaurant. Plenty of exposed brickwork, steel railings, a playful green house on one wall and an open kitchen on the other, it looked inviting and contemporary. I then read their philosophy of staying true to local Nantaise cuisine, taking advantage home grown vegetables (for which the area is renowned), the abundance of the  sea and river, lamb reared on the salty marshes and time-honoured techniques of classical French cuisine. I made an advance booking. 

I arrived at Le restaurant Baron-Lefèvre and was ushered to my table for one. The nice thing about France is there were a couple of other lone diners and I was not made to feel unwelcome or a spectacle as so often happens in UK restaurants. Nor was I given a reduced level of service which also seems to typify dining solo. 

The menu was full of interesting preparations, a few classics, a couple twists on classics and some house originals. What I immediately noticed was the simplicity of the preparations and an emphasis on 2-3 core ingredients, proudly stamped with local provenance. There were plenty of mouth watering plates from a simple platter of langoustine (Dublin Bay Prawns) served on crushed ice to a traditional salt marsh rack of lamb with spring vegetables. However, there were a few things that leaped out at me. Here’s what I went for: 


White Asparagus with Sauce Mousseline 
Loire Valley Cremant (sparkling wine) 

White asparagus is not nearly as popular in the UK as it is on the continent where it takes precedence over the green variety. It has a subtler flavour, with a faint taste of oysters. Perfectly cooked, each part of the vegetables was tender and accompanied by a foaming, decadent sauce Mousseline, which is essentially a Hollandaise with the addition of whipped cream. Deliciously decadent, but judiciously portioned, it whetted my appetite for my main course. The dry, sparkling cremant was a light counterpoint which worked well. 

*

Eels in a parsley and garlic butter sauce with Nantes spring vegetables
A Carafe of Muscadet

Eels and apprehension go hand in hand in the mind of the Englishman and I do think this a sad state of affairs, as there are few greater pleasures that the taste of eel flesh with its tender, oily flesh offset by a reassuringly organic earthiness found in river fish. The Loire abounds with Eels so this really is the place to eat it. This time, I had it prepared in a very classic style in a parsley, garlic and butter sauce surrounded by tiny new potatoes. It’s a winning combination and made even more special with a small cocotte of turned carrots, fresh peas and green asparagus tips. Wanting to drink the local tipple, I went for a carafe of Muscadet, where its fresh, slightly acidic taste worked well with rich food. A truly stunning dish. 

*

Rum Baba with Tropical Fruits
Cafe Noir

Given the richness of the main course, I was tempted to pass on pudding until I saw that one of the specials for the evening was a traditionally made Rum Baba. Although a speciality of Lorraine (where I visit later in the trip) I could not resist - it’s one of my favourite puddings, a sure way to my heart. I was presented with a  light doughnut type pastry on a bed of pineapple carpaccio and raspberries, topped with a generous portion of Chantilly cream then liberally doused with white rum (which soaked into the pastry). With each mouthful I felt my stomach agreeably expanding! It’s highly alcoholic so there was no need for a digestif but I a well made black coffee cut through the richness! 

The total bill was €57, which, given the amount I had consumed was not to bad at all. It was a superb meal, if you are in Nantes, I thoroughly recommend making the time to visit. 


Coming Up: I head to Angers to explore the seat of the Dukes of Anjou, sip on Cointreau and enjoy an andouilette. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Bloody Good Chap goes to France: Nantes a care in the world...

Nantes rarely seems to get much of a look in on the tourism agenda, yet, having spent the first 24 hours of my trip in Brittany’s former capital, I must say that I highly recommend it to those looking for a short weekend break, or a destination from which to start a big adventure. It could be anything from dipping down the Atlantic coast or following the Loire as it contours through the French interior to a leisurely drive/cycle through Breton pastures. 

I will warn those culture vultures and Medieval maniacs that Nantes is not a ‘pretty’ place, rather a working one, built on fishing, shipbuilding and biscuits (LU’s Petit Ecoliers come hail from here). It bursts with affluence and the glitz and glamour someone might associate with a major city, yet it is only a minor player. 

The layout is stereotypical, grand boulevards cut through sections of non-linear streets, punctuated here and there by squares teeming with ornate churches, casual cafes and rip-off restaurants. 

Arriving at 9:00am on a Saturday, I found that the city was yet to awaken - it was deathly quiet as I pitched up at my cheap, but very cheerful hotel! Dumping my bags, I headed off to explore and grab a cup of coffee. The local square was characterised by a large fountain and families enjoying their baguettes avec buerre et confiture, the sky was ominous, the climate hazy. Having only had four hours sleep the night before, I was in need of something to perk me up. Alighting on a tabac I found my first opportunity. 

I have never really been a cigarette smoker and had fully intended to enjoy a cigar or two on this trip. However, my eyes alighted on a packet of Gitanes Filtre and I instantly knew that this would be my choice. No longer available in the UK the might Gitane conjure up a real sense of nostalgia, my father’s brand of choice, the smell took me back to the rugged landscape of the Lot-Garonne in the south west of France. 

I quickly found a cafe, “un Muscadet s’il vous plait”, I said with confidence. No one batted an eyelid, the fact that I was ordering a glass of wine at 10:30am seemed entirely normal. Anyway, it was my holiday, so restraint be damned! One wanted to say about the wine that it was ‘Heaven with Gitanes...’ (a Brideshead reference for my more literary followers). All I needed now was a stripy jumper, a plate of oysters and ecrevettes (large prawns) and the look would be complete. After all this procrastination, it was time for lunch.

The Gallette (buckwheat pancake) is synonymous with the area around Nantes and seemingly there was an establishment on each corner offering all manner of sweet and savoury fillings. there was a place the guide recommended, and yes, it was near my hotel. I pitched up, but it looked tacky and soulless compared to the one next to it. So it was that I took the road less travelled by, not for the first time in my life, and went to the smaller, rather less ‘bells and whistles’ establishment. 

As soon as I stepped over the threshold, I knew I wanted one of the famous Breton ciders, clear and flat, it’s served by the china bowl (boelee) and decanted from a pottery jug. It slipped down a treat as I tucked into a Gallette filled with onions, ham, cheese and of course, the obligatory egg, with an irresistibly runny yolk! This was quickly followed by a flambeed crepe topped with rum and raisins. It was a fine meal and a perfect introduction to my quest to sample as much regional cuisine as possible. 

The afternoon was spent pootling around town, stopping every now and then for a refresher. One place, Comedie de Vins, springs to mind where dry white wine played off against a plate of salty sardines and a bowl of saucisson as the sky became clear and the evening sun shone on my brow.

Here I take a moment to pause... as dinner deserves a short, stand alone post, given that it was one of the two big meals that I decided to indulge in on this bloody good adventure... 

Coming up: I delve into the culinary delights of Restaurant Maison Baron Le Fevre.